Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a condition where a clot (thrombosis) develops in the deep veins of the leg. Patients who are at risk for this condition are those who:

  • have been sitting or lying down for prolonged periods of time without moving - like those who have been on a long airplane or car ride, or someone who is bedridden.
  • have a condition where their blood is prone to clots - sometimes associated with a blood disorder, cancer, or extreme dehydration.
  • have had recent surgery - especially orthopedic surgery to the hip or knee.
  • have had trauma, like a pelvic injury or a broken leg.
  • have a spinal injury and paralysis.

Deep vein thrombosis risks

A deep vein thrombosis is dangerous because once these clots develop in the legs, they can break off and float to other parts of the body. Blood from the veins travels into the right side of the heart and out to the lungs. There, it picks up oxygen from the lungs, returns to the heart (the left side), and is pumped out into the body, where the oxygen is delivered. Therefore, deep vein clots will occasionally float into the lungs where they become stuck. This is called a "pulmonary embolism" or PE, and can be very dangerous, even fatal.

DVT symptoms & treatment

Deep vein thromboses are most often found when there is leg swelling that involves only one leg. It usually develops over a day or two. The leg may also experience pain. If questioned, the patient can usually think of something that put him/her at risk, like a long plane ride or recent surgery.

If your doctor suspects a DVT, he or she will immediately obtain an ultrasound. If DVT is suspected, It is imperative that the ultrasound be completed as soon as possible. If the ultrasound results show a clot in the leg, DVT treatment with blood thinners are started immediately. Your doctor will explain these medications to you, since these medicines must be taken and monitored very carefully. The blood thinners are very important because they allow the body to break down the clot slowly over time and they are effective at preventing the clot from floating into the lungs (pulmonary embolism).

Deep venous thrombosis can also damage the veins in the leg, especially if the clot is extensive. In this case, the damage to the veins can be serious because the deep venous system is large, and is responsible for most of the work of bringing blood back up to the heart against gravity. If these deep veins are blocked with a clot, the clot can injure the valves over time leading to an ineffective venous system. Patients then may have debilitating swelling and severe venous insufficiency in their leg which leads to skin changes and ulcers. They can also have severe pain in this leg called post-phlebitic syndrome. It is a dreaded complication of extensive DVT that can occur even with adequate anticoagulation therapy using blood thinning pharmaceuticals. If the clot is extensive or if blood thinner treatment is not possible, patients can be referred to a vascular surgeon for further evaluation and possible surgical treatment.